Most Doctors Will Face Malpractice Suit During Careers, Study Finds

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Most doctors will face a malpractice lawsuit at some point in their careers, a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found.

The threat of being sued creates a "tangible fear" that can lead physicians to practice costly "defensive medicine," the researchers concluded. Despite recurring calls for medical malpractice reform, the study found doctors in virtually all fields face a high risk of ending up in court.

The study looked at malpractice data from 1991 to 2005 across nearly 41,000 physicians covered by an unnamed national insurer.

The researchers at Harvard University and other institutions estimated that 99 percent of doctors in "high-risk" fields faced a malpractice claim by the time they were 65 years old. In low-risk fields, the figure was still 75 percent.

In any given year, the study found 7.4 percent of doctors faced a claim.

Most of the suits did not result in payment -- only about 1 in 5 claims led to a monetary settlement. The study also did not suggest the claims were in any way frivolous.

However, the authors said the sheer frequency of claims could account for "intense pressure to practice defensive medicine." They said doctors can insure against indemnity payments, but that they still face "the indirect costs of litigation, such as time, stress, added work, and reputational damage."

Lawmakers often blame defensive medicine -- the ordering of extra tests and procedures to protect a doctor against possible suit -- for the rising cost of health care.

Medical malpractice reform was largely overlooked in the crafting of the federal health care overhaul, though President Obama said earlier this year that he's open to tort reform to "rein in frivolous lawsuits."